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Wine Star Awards past, it’s back home to work

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Back in Oakland afrer an intense 4 days in New York for Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Star Awards and subsequent meetings and tastings at the magazine’s HQs in Westchester.

I’m very proud of our W.S.A. program and how far it’s come in ten years to become one of the most exciting and important wine industry events in the world. Held every January in the inspiring Beaux Arts edifice of the New York Public Library’s main branch, on 42nd Street at Fifth Avenue, the awards is a gathering place for movers and shakers to come together, socialize and have fun.

I don’t much like wearing a tuxedo, the recommended attire for gentlemen, but I like everything else about the evening. I tend to get a little nervous when I’m onstage introducing my nominee/winners, addressing a well-fueled audience of 500 that can be talking and laughing. But I used to do standup comedy in San Francisco, a city of hecklers, and I learned a few tricks about leaning into the mike and throwing your voice and making people recognize your presence through force and authority. Audiences respond to authority, especially when it’s amplified.

I met many new people in addition to seeing lots of old friends and acquaintances. Among the former was Robert Hill Smith, who heads Yalumba. We kind of bonded, and he walked me through a tasting of some of his wines, which impressed the heck out of me. I also had a nice chat with Ted Baseler, who now heads up Ste. Michelle Wine Estates but was (as I recall) Number Two when I knew him back in the day. Scott McCleod, Rubicon’s winemaker, who was our Winemaker of the Year, had been my nominee. We sat next to each other for dinner. What a charming man, so shy and mellow and smart.


Presenting the award to Big Scott

Roger Trinchero, CEO of our American Winery of the Year, Trinchero Family Estates, is strong and dignified and warm, a living personification of the soul of Napa Valley’s founding fathers. Each winner prepared a video about himself or his company, and the funniest of the night — indeed, the funniest ever — was Josh Wesson’s. He was our Retailer of the Year (for Best Cellars at A&P), and his little movie was a takeoff on the pomposity and silliness that can occur in selling wine. And then there was our Innovator of the Year, Gary Vaynerchuck, of Wine Library TV fame.

I had mixed reactions to his acceptance speech, as did others, but it certainly was an apt demonstration of Gary’s remarkable self-esteem. Afterward, Larry Stone (Rubicon’s GM and an old friend) and I decided to have a little fun. (Neither of us had ever physically met Gary, although Gary and I have had exchanges through this blog.) We introduced ourselves to him, but switched identities: I was Larry, and Larry was Steve. Gary shook my hand and said how nice it was to meet the famous Larry Stone. He likewise shook Larry’s “Steve’s” hand and uttered a similar nicety. Then Larry explained the ruse, and Gary, without missing a beat, replied, “Of course I knew. I was just wondering how far you’d take it.” A smart guy, quick on his feet.

Martha Stewart was there, but sadly I didn’t get the chance to make her acquaintance. And our Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Harvey Chaplin, president of Southern Wine & Spirits, gave what was for me the warmest, most heartfelt speech. Although his was last, and the hour was late, everybody sat listening with rapt attention.

At evening’s end, we were all exhilirated but tired. Most of us also were jet-lagged. As we were staying that night in Westchester, Wine Enthusiast’s publisher, Adam Strum, had arranged for a white stretch limo to drive eight of us north. We piled in, well past midnight. The driver turned on the ignition; a giant cloud of white smoke erupted from under the hood. He got out and started tinkering. I joined him. He was completely baffled, and said, “I’m a driver, not a mechanic.” Uh oh. He unscrewed the radiator cap. Suddenly, it was Old Failthful in midtown Manhattan; we ran for cover. Then he trotted off toward Times Square, muttering something about finding a “bodega” where he could buy bottled water for the radiator. Somehow, miraculously, we secured another limo, and finally got to bed at 3 a.m. I didn’t get much sleep before meetings resumed early the next morning, but coffee, grit and intellectual stimulation go a long way toward combating fatigue.

The final event at HQ was a fabulous tasting of Robert Mondavi wines with their longtime winemaker, Genevieve Janssens, a talented and humane person whom I wrote about in my last book, New Classic Winemakers of California. Genevieve always speaks of her dedication to preserving “Mr. Mondavi’s vision,” and you can see and hear his ethereal presence through and around her. And such brilliant wines. Constellation has happily given Genevieve everything she needs to build success upon success. And after all, she is able to work with the fruit of Tokalon, a great growth — possibly, the great growth — of California.

After the tasting, we piled back into a limo (black, this time) for the ride to JFK and home. Happily, this time, the car didn’t break down.

  1. Sounds like a blast. Plus, I now have some extra fodder for teasing Gary!

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